Wednesday 25 November 2015

Crossworld by Marc Romano

Crossworld by Marc RomanoI might not have read Marc Romano's Crossworld had I not received it as a gift. The subtitle tells us that the book is about "one man's journey into America's crossword obsession". An unfamiliar author writing about the kind of crosswords I don't solve would not interest me terribly – or so I thought.

The idiom "don't judge a book by its cover" just got a literal endorsement: I opened this book's cover and I found in it much to enjoy.

Crossworld begins with the line:

This is a book about my yearlong journey into the world of competitive crossword solving – although saying that is a little like saying "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a song about a girl or The Scream is a painting of a guy standing on a bridge.

This style of drawing extra-crossword parallels continues throughout the narrative: if that's your thing, you will find Crossworld an entertaining ride.

As a first-person account of the 2004 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), the book captures the feel of the tournament well and has many elements a competitive solver of other puzzles too will identify with. The rules of the Indian Crossword League or UK's Times Crossword Championship may vary, but the factors that make or break one's performance in these contests are universal: the trade-off between time and accuracy, the difference between solving online vs solving on paper / solving alone vs solving alongside others, the enormous cost of tiny errors. Most of all the shared thrill of being surrounded by crossword lovers at the championship venue.

The goings-on at 2004 ACPT are narrated with expansive detail, but there were times when I wished for a little less detail. I would not have missed them if the passages on point totals during the puzzle rounds ["Brendan finished the sixth puzzle correctly in nineteen minutes to earn 1,825 points; I finished in twenty-one, with one mistake, to earn 1,580. At 7,895 to 7,665, he was safely and irretrievably ahead of me overall." (p129)] or what the author ate after the tournament ["I ate some walnuts" (p164)] had been dropped, and the fascinating sub-chapter on the crossword mystery novel had been extended. This portion describes rare and out-of-print crossword whodunuts written a few decades ago and made me add a few to my book wishlist, notably John Garland's Crime of the Crossword (1940), for which Crossworld includes a complimentary précis by Will Shortz.

As in the film Wordplay, Will Shortz is a towering presence in Marc Romano's story. Crossworld presents him with great warmth and admiration, quoting and referencing him every few pages: his opinion on other setters' work, his influence that prompted Marc Romano to modify his coinage "cryptic creep" (the growing influx of cryptic wordplay in American crosswords) to "cryptic drift". A full chapter The Puzzlemaster in his Labyrinth gives us a tour of Will Shortz's library containing thousands of puzzle books and memorabilia.

One thing that pulls the book down is its overall structure. There are many tangential notes and back-references, mostly fun reading on their own, but they disrupt the flow of the outer story. The other is the narrator's focus on himself when turning the spotlight on others around would have made the book more appealing. 

Crossworld is perhaps best read as a view to the puzzling landscape through the author's prism - what he sees might not always coincide with what we would see independently. For one, things are seldom "good" or "bad" in Marc Romano's world, they are "best ever" or "worst ever".

You'd think that a crossword competition would be a quiet and understated sort of affair, given that it features the largest collection of loners this side of the last Kafka family reunion, ...

This is like hearing a friend given to dramatized opinions – I would listen attentively, but I would not take everything he says at face value. I felt this strongest when he touched upon cryptic crosswords. If we consider quick crosswords and cryptics as two camps, Marc Romano is clearly in the former and I believe gets carried away when contrasting the two. Sample these:

…American-style puzzles require that every letter appearing in them has to be conected to at least two others, while British-style puzzles allow – in fact they prefer – there to be as many unchecked letters as possible.

Since cryptics are easier to construct than American puzzles, you don't need legions of freelance contributors, overseen by one all-powerful editor, to make sure one appears in your newspaper every day of the year. All you need is one guy reliably cranking them out for you (who might be the editor himself), …

The statement about cryptic checking is not true, which puzzles are easier to construct and how many contributors you need for them (one vs legions!) is not so simplistic to determine. He goes on to make a case that Americans struggle with cryptics because of less checking and "unfamiliarity with the minutiae of British life and society". I am astonished to read such reasoning from someone who "can usually complete the Times of London cryptic" (p47).

But there were other conclusions I agreed with totally. When talking of puzzles in different languages, Marc Romano says the ability to solve puzzles in a language is no measure of proficiency in that language. That made me think about the many solvers who complete Hindi crosswords based on cryptic technique and knowledge of the script alone, without having native fluency in Hindi. 

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Vasant said...

Nice to read another post after a long break...about books is my favourite topic..loved reading this one..

raju umamaheswar said...

An excellent write up-- balanced and informative ! Lets hear more of such news. Thanks

michael said...

The first quote from the book should say "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" instead of "Lucky".
Definitely the checking is a hindrance, especially as it often takes a while to figure out a clue. It's a lot easier to make progress in an American due to checking and the sheer volume of clues.

Shuchi said...

@Vasant, @raju: Thank you.

@michael: Fixed the typo, thanks.

Quick definition-based crosswords need high checking to avoid ambiguity. Cryptic crosswords do not need that level of checking as each clue contains an alternate way to reach the answer.

The book quotes Araucaria's THE OLD VICARAGE GRANTCHESTER clue, with an argument that Americans would be extremely challenged in solving it as they would not know about Jeffrey Archer or this place. My take is that the anagram fodder + the enu (3,3,8,12) gives plenty of help to the unaware solver, even with cryptic-style checking. For the same unaware solver, an American-style clue with this answer can be tougher despite more checking.

The challenge with cryptics has more to do with the deceptive nature of clues, less to do with checking or familiarity with British life and society.